• In season now: May

    New this month: Asparagus! The food of gods... and carrots are back.

    Still in season from last month: cauliflower, chard, green cabbage, salad leaves, main-crop potatoes (from store), salad leaves, sea kale, spring greens, rhubarb

    Goodbye till next year to: Purple sprouting broccoli (sniff, sniff), leeks, stored parsnips, forced rhubarb

  • What I’m doing here

    This all started when I picked the first strawberries from my new allotment.

    I'd never been so enraptured or so excited by food. It was a shock to find that anything could taste so good.

    So what - I'd never had strawberries before?

    No - all the strawberries I'd had were shop-bought, like as not flown in from intensive growers in Spain or Chile, and eaten in winter when strawberries should be a distant summer memory.

    It revolutionised my thinking about the fresh food we eat every day. I started to wonder if you got the same amazing taste from all types of food grown and eaten in season. And then I decided to do something about it.

    The Year of Eating Seasonally is my little experiment to find out what it's really like not to have it all. The only fruit and veg I and my family are going to eat in 2008 will be what's growing in the ground at the time (or, in winter, what I can get out of store).

    I want to find out if the hungry gap is really as hungry as everyone says it is: whether you're really eating nothing but cabbage all winter; and whether you miss strawberries in December.

    Along the way I hope I'll save a few tons of carbon being released into the atmosphere on my behalf, as I won't be requiring those French beans flown from Chile, thanks very much. And I hope I'll be rediscovering what food can really taste like.

    If you have any comments, please feel free to post them anywhere you like - or you can email me at sallywhite@hotmail.com.

Is seasonal eating good for you?

This might seem like a no-brainer. But hang on a minute. Is it any better for you to eat seasonally than, say, to eat out-of-season fruit and veg all year round?

The health benefits of fruit and veg are well-documented. A key plank in the UK government’s health strategy is the “Five a day” plan. This aims to get everyone in the country eating at least five portions of fruit and veg a day. Currently they’re a long way off the mark – the average person in the UK eats less than 3 portions of fruit and vegetables a day. This is even lower amongst young people.1

If you remain to be convinced, just look at the health benefits of eating more fruit and veg.

  • You can reduce your risk of  deaths from chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, and cancer by up to 20%.3
  • Diet is thought to contribute to the development of one-third of all cancers.4
  • Increasing fruit and vegetable consumption is the second most important cancer prevention strategy, after reducing smoking. 4
  • The cancers which you can prevent by increasing fruit and vegetable consumption include: colorectal cancer, gastric cancer and, to a lesser extent, breast cancer. 4
  • These cancers combined represent about 18% of the cancer burden in men and about 30% in women.4
  • Each increase of 1 portion of fruit and vegetables a day lowers the risk of coronary heart disease by 4% and the risk of stroke by 6%. 5

Right, so we’re convinced that eating more fresh fruit and veg is good for you. But the government’s research into fruit and veg consumption for the Five-a-Day campaign at no point mentions additional benefits from making sure that’s seasonal fruit and veg.

So is there any evidence that it’s better for you if your veg is seasonal?

First, if it’s not seasonal it’s probably been flown in from somewhere: and that means it’s not actually fresh. Researchers from the Austrian Consumers Association in 2003 found that vegetables picked and frozen when in season are actually higher in nutrients than those flown in out of season from abroad.

So the vitamin content of frozen peas, beans, sweetcorn, carrots and cauliflower was significantly higher than fresh vegetables imported from Italy, Turkey, Spain and Israel.

The same report also found “fresh” vegetables imported from abroad contain much higher levels of nitrates – more than seven times higher in some samples. There’s no strong evidence that these are bad for you, but some experts believe consumption of nitrates should be kept in check. 6

So what happens to food after it’s picked in Israel and starts its journey to our supermarkets in the UK?

Time to learn about Modified Atmosphere Packaging… of which more soon.

Second, veggie vitamins vary according to the seasons too as do our needs. Strawberries contain high levels of antioxidants, which it’s thought protect you from the drying/ageing effects of the sun. Plus they’ve got lots of ellagic acid – which is said to prevent you absorbing carcinogens carried in pollution.

Fruit and veg in summer have a high fluid content – cooling you down. Winter root veg are high in starches – slow release energies which keep you warm.7

There’s anecdotal evidence that you catch fewer colds and are generally healthier if you eat seasonally. I’d really like to see a study done on this, but until there is one, we have to rely on personal experience.  Sheherezade Goldsmith, who eats seasonally, reports that “My skin has become really good and my immune system is a lot better; I used to get ill all the time, but now it is a rare occurrence… Recently, everyone we knew had flu, but Thyra [her daughter] didn’t get so much as a sniffle. It’s well worth not being able to eat a tomato in January.” 7 I’ll also be keeping tabs on our own record of illness this year: at time of writing it’s been six weeks and not a sneeze among us, even though it’s mostly been January, damp and cold.

PS. Don’t get confused between seasonal and organic: I’m not here to bang the drum for organic food. There’s a lot of debate at the moment about whether or not it’s better for you to eat organic food: the jury is still out. Personally, I prefer to know my food hasn’t been sloshed about in chemicals, which is why I grow my own wherever possible: but if I’m in the supermarket faced with organic beans flown in from Italy versus non-organic beans grown in Kent, I’ll go for non-organic every time (see facts & figures on food miles). However this isn’t a choice about seasonal or not seasonal per se: so it’s best left out of the debate. 

1. The UK government’s 5-a-day campaign (www.5aday.nhs.uk)
2. A combination of Department of Health reports in 1994 and 1998, and the World Health Organisation report from 1990 (quoted on http://www.5aday.nhs.uk)
3. Department of Health report 2000 (quoted on http://www.5aday.nhs.uk)
4. The NHS’s anti-cancer plan, published 2000 (quoted on www.5aday.nhs.uk)
5. Article in Annals of Internal Medicine, 2001 (quoted on www.5aday.nhs.uk)
6. BBC news report 31/3/03: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/2902223.stm
7. Report by The Daily Telegraph 2002
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